What truly lurks inside the ill mind of Hopsin? That is something the lyricist’s annual video series of the same name could never really answer, not with any real depth at least; those records are small pieces of a much grander, more vivid sonic puzzle. There is a great deal rustling around the cranium of Marcus Hopson, and it has far less to do with hostility or antagonism than his confrontational reputation suggests. Hopsin seeks simply to be understood, and he is slowly learning that giving that vulnerability a voice in his lyrics makes for truly inspired music. Knock Madness, Hopsin’s third studio album, is the next step in his evolution as an artist, and while the project isn’t without growing pains, it showcases his lyrical dexterity in a way that expands his appeal without alienating his core fans. Basically, Knock Madness is a stepping stone album, the kind that leads to even greater music in the long term. It produces some pretty solid music here in the present, too.

Hopsin is of the same ilk as underground staple Tech N9ne—a man with whom he collaborates on the album—and he's been wise to follow the Kansas City MC’s business model: longevity as a result of sustained excellence providing a very specific product to a very hungry audience. Both MCs explore subject matter that casual fans might find disturbing, both are wildly skilled rappers and both take great pleasure in showcasing their talents on a whim. But Hopsin may possess greater crossover appeal—his flows are far less erratic and the progression of his schemes are easier to follow, even when he aggressively packs syllables together in clumps with the impact of a head-on collision. He’ll never disregard his base though, and his third studio release—a product of his own Funk Volume label—is a testament to that: evolution without compromise.

Knock Madness is a visceral experience that forces you to see the world through Hopsin’s colored contact lenses. The album is unquestionably heavy throughout, but the rapper himself shoulders most of its weight; he never asks you to bare his burden, but you feel compelled to, and as a result it takes a real emotional toll. It’s rather existential in many aspects. Hopsin masterfully bridges the gap between the despicable character he creates in his raps—one who mocks the vilest of behaviors and considers everything a crude joke—and the human being he actually is, and he finds refuge for both buried deep beneath elaborate horror flick-score synth arrangements of the Fruity Loop variety. He strays ever so slightly from his patented formula from time to time, but never far enough to cause concern. Experimentation is a sign of growth, and even when Hop tries new things they are lathered with his signature aesthetic. Very rarely do the novel ideas come from way out of left field.

Regardless of the content though, wordplay takes center stage on Knock Madness. He strings together sentences like, "I'm sicker than sticking my freaking dick inside a bitch’s syphilis cooch," and it's mesmerizing. Most of the album's highlights put his masterful technique on display, and there are few moments that don’t dazzle. The synth piano-laced “I Need Help” produces some of the MCs most elastic flows to date, coupling a chop of his own vocals with quotes like “FV doin’ shit so bigheaded I’m on your side now, nigga fuck us.” Frequent collaborator SwizZz tags along once again for the heavy-handed "Jungle Bash," which builds around drum programming worthy of the song’s title. "Hip Hop Sinister" is the closest to Raw as the new album gets, and each bar is like relentlessly pummeling one’s knuckles into a brick wall until they crust over with blood. "Old Friend" or "Ill Mind Of Hopsin 6" detail the affect of drug addition on someone he once knew you understand why he’s so cynical. It is one of many glimpses into Hopsin’s personal life, and it contributes to the album’s brilliance turning him from an angry sociopath one minute to an endearing victim the next. Knock Madness wins because it balances the specific with the universal.

Hopsin considers retirement on the album—well, he doesn’t really consider it he suggests it—but we should all hope he doesn’t follow through. Knock Madness is indeed a stepping stone album, one that can only produce even better music in the future. It will require some resilience, but the foundation is set. This album could be the first Hopsin album in a long line of really great Hopsin albums. Or it can be the last Hopsin album. Only he can decide. In either case, Knock Madness will, at the very least, serve as a peek into the wildly entertaining thought process of one of hip-hop’s most misunderstood characters. --Sheldon Pearce